From Brenda in Hove: The Rich get Richer, the Poor get Poorer

19 July

Twice a year the ‘wealth management’ firm that looks after our modest savings usually invite their small clients to London for a talk on how it sees the markets and what position it is taking on various sectors. This is accompanied by a extravagant lunch and a choice of afternoon activities: tickets to a play or private tour of an historic building. It is meant to convey that all is well with our little world as long as we stay in their hands. This year such an occasion was clearly not possible so we were invited to a Zoom meeting.

I settled down, filled with apprehension, expecting to hear that our savings had plummeted and we were not in as good shape as we had hoped for our retirement. I listened in sheer astonishment at the smooth, assuring and assured presentation telling us all that we were doing rather well, actually. Really?

The quarterly news letters continued along similar lines. Take this extract: “The possibility of a second wave in America has shaken US markets, which have had an astonishing quarter. The S&P 500 gained significant traction between the end of March and the start of June, posting the greatest 50-day rally in the history of the index.1 The Federal Reserve has played a key role in boosting US markets, and the gradual recovery of cyclical stocks since May suggests that investors are adopting an increasingly ‘risk-on’ approach as lockdown measures are progressively eased. Oil has made a swift recovery over the quarter after the price of a barrel turned negative for a brief period in April: prices are currently their highest since early March.2   

The contrast between markets and economies, however, is striking. Unemployment in the United States remains at a historical high, and the GDP of the world’s advanced economies is expected to tumble by over 6% this year, surpassing the fallout from the global financial crisis.3 Global output has been badly damaged; world trade fell by 12.1% in April, by far the largest drop ever recorded.4 While the optimism in global markets is encouraging, the risk of permanent scarring on the global economy should not be overlooked.” Really?

You can guess that wealth management institutions stick to the big companies – especially with people our age who have a low risk profile.

I asked for a private meeting with the person who manages our small portfolio in early March when it was clear there was stormy weather ahead. I was told by this very assured young man that our portfolios were very well placed for what was unfolding. I said that was some kind of minor miracle. The biggest collapse in economic fortunes for many, many decades – and we just happened to have the ideal portfolios! He stuck to his guns and sent me the latest quarterly report and the company news letters to back him up. And events so far have proved him right. I am under no illusion that this state of affairs will continue but in the meantime, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It was ever thus.  

I can see no defense at all for not increasing taxes for the rich. It seems not just a practical necessity in these difficult times, but a moral imperative.

From Brenda in Hove: It’s Part of my curriculum

the Toulouse-blue crepe van

11 July. I have been feeling a bit poorly for a few weeks and haven’t been out much. Truth be told, life felt somewhat joyless. Covid and attendant restrictions are getting to me. Today I felt a bit better and went to the park to find out if my legs still worked (they did). I trod my usual paths and looked out for anything different since I was last there. Same old thing: lots of men with very shaggy beards; lots of men who haven’t heard of clippers; lots of women with weird hairdos who clearly haven’t made it onto the appointment lists; boisterous teenagers being the only people who at least don’t seem as subdued as the rest of us but behaving rather recklessly nonetheless. No joy there.

I noticed that there are now well trodden, clearly discernible paths alongside the main paved paths around the park – made by people like me trying to keep an acceptable distance from the people on the paths – lots of them. I read somewhere (The Observer, 14 June) that these are called “desire paths” (can you believe it?) – paths trodden by people who are usually intent on a shortcuts but are now intent on keeping to social distancing measures. It struck me how furtive and suspicious we all seem now – avoiding each other as if our lives depended on it (and they may). If an alien landed from another planet, it would think we were a very unsociable species. And that is before we don our masks. No joy there either.

The children’s play area was open. Now there is a joyful thing! I love children and I love watching children play. They have been kept away from the playground for so many months that they were relishing being back. Children walking with their parents on the path and spotting the playground just took off, faster than they have ever run before. Amusing. And joyful.

And then I caught sight of a dear little Toulouse-blue van advertising French crepes (gluten free, by some miracle). I felt genuine joy! I love crepes and haven’t had a single one since I went on a gluten free (dreary) diet. The brand name was “Oui!” I leapt to it – even though I had to go back to the apartment for my card. It was delicious. It reminded me of what I already knew: joy can be found in small things. It doesn’t do to be too ambitious.

I read a book some time ago called The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was much to be learnt from it. One story stuck with me and comes to mind as I try to come to terms with a life after Covid (challenged as I am by my advanced age). The author’s father had fallen down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury – with no guarantees that he would ever return to his former self. As it happens, he did, eventually. When one of his sons said that he was sorry he had had this terrible experience, the father replied, “Oh no, not at all. It’s all part of my curriculum.” (page 157)    

I think it is very much like this with Covid. We have to learn to find joy in new ways. It’s part of our curricula.     

From Brenda in Hove: Picnics, more or less

“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.” W. Somerset Maughan

Namaqualand daisies by James Gourley

14 June. Lockdown restrictions are easing here in the UK. So when I went for my usual walk around our park today, I was interested to note the differences this occasioned – especially as it is a Sunday. There was much that was very different. Teenagers, in particular, seemed to have embraced their freedom with a vengeance – especially the boys: riding their bikes and skateboards as fast as they could manage on the tarred path; having riotous games of basketball; having football games; and generally hanging out with their friends with no heed at all for social distancing. I suppose they have read about their odds of getting the virus and even the longer odds of dying from it. I felt very sympathetic towards them. Lockdown must have been very difficult for youngsters that age.

There were also more people in the park than has been usual – many of them picnicking. Picnics seem to me to be the ideal way of meeting your friends when social distancing is required, and they are seeing a resurgence. But I have to say that either none of them today seem to have had much experience of picnics or they were all very unimaginative. If a picnic is to be enjoyed there needs to be some sense of occasion to the affair.  

I have been spoilt in this department. One of my very best picnics was at Glyndebourne during the opera season. I have a generous friend who does the spoiling. One year, he ordered everything it was possible to order for a picnic during the interval. He had a table (no less) with six chairs, draped in damask, cut-glass wine glasses, silver cutlery, champagne on  ice, and an excellent three course menu served by a waiter. Somerset Maughan would have approved!  

Another standard-setting picnic years ago was in South Africa on a trip to see the Namaqualand daisies which come out once a year for about three weeks and are as spectacular as anyone could wish for. We and a group of friends had booked out a very small boutique hotel near a place called Velorenvlei (the name translated from Afrikaans means ‘lonely marsh’ describing an estuarine marsh on the Atlantic coast and a bird lovers’ paradise). We had left the booking to our friends in the Cape and left the arrangements to them as well.

We didn’t realize that one of the hotel’s claim to fame was its cuisine. One of the arrangements made was that the hotel pack us a picnic basket for a day out to one of the nature reserves in the area. When we arrived at the reserve we picked out a suitable place to have our picnic and set about opening the three massive hampers that the hotel had furnished. The most astonishing things came out of those three hampers. All the ingredients for a three course meal (including, I seem to remember, ostrich eggs) – complete with a printed menu for each of us! Damask cloths on the lawn, beautiful crockery, silver cutlery, you-name-it, even silver cigar cutters.

One of our party used to write the wine guide to South African wines every year and he had brought us just the right wine for every course (in an ice-packed hamper). I can’t drink wine so it was wasted on me – as was the conversation discussing the merits and demerits of every wine. At first, it was hilarious – again Somerset Maughan would have approved – but then we found that the reserve was on the tourist trail and we had settled ourselves very near to where all the tour buses parked. Dozens and dozens of people from all over the world who had come to see the daisies (!) were absolutely amazed to find this decadent scene of South Africans having a serious picnic. Out came the cameras and we were the subjects of an untold number of photographs. So embarrassing. How were they to know that none of us, before or since, had ever had such a picnic?

Moving on, we are planning to have some picnics of our own in the near future with much missed friends and family. They might not meet Somerset Maughan’s standards but they won’t descend to the minimalist fare seen in the park today!  

From Brenda in Hove: “It is the lives we encounter that make life meaningful.”

11 June

 “One key feature that we have come to appreciate about Covid-19 is that it is a disease of old age. The chance that a person over 75 will die from it is actually 10,000 times greater than it is for a 15 year-old who gets infected.” * If you are, like me, over 75, that sentence concentrates the mind. It also puts you on notice that, unlike most people in the population, your life won’t change dramatically when lock-down is lifted until a vaccine is found. Even then you are highly unlikely to be anywhere near first in line to get a vaccine. Administering a vaccine to a sufficient number of people to make a difference takes a long time – a very long time. Years.

Pondering what this means to my life put me in mind of the novel A Gentleman in Moscow and an arresting quote: “Adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The novel is about a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is ordered by a Bolshevik tribunal at the time of the revolution to spend the rest of his life in a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He has to vacate his suite of rooms in the hotel and instead take up residence in the servants’ quarters – and all his activities are bound by what can take place in the hotel. It feels a bit like what we oldies are to endure – and how we can find meaning and pleasure in our much reduced circumstances.

When we started out as a group recording this time of Covid, I was immediately pre-occupied by getting my affairs in order, dealing with the practicalities (like wills and other personal papers) as indeed the Count does in the story. The Count is portrayed as a very disciplined person who does not allow himself to drop his personal standards in the matter of dress and daily exercise. He also sets himself the goal of reading the books he has always meant to read (Essays of Montaigne!) but never got around to. Intellectually, one agrees that these things are important when confinement is visited upon one. I even set out to do the very same things! I failed – not miserably, but a ‘fail’ nonetheless. I can’t say I feel ‘mastered’ by circumstances but I do feel challenged. Standards have definitely fallen around here. I wear the same clothes for days on end (who cares?), my hairstyling is left to the tender and haphazard mercies of my husband, my exercise regime goes in fits and starts, and my concentration levels don’t seem to extend to the great books I was so determined to read at the start of all this. Getting the apartment in order after our big move doesn’t seem that important any more. We will take it at a much slower pace. One thing is true and that is that my bridge has improved. Better than nothing, I suppose. Even the inestimable (fictional) Count didn’t get to finishing Montaigne!

If television and YouTube and the vast domains beyond are to be believed, the on-line world is practically humming with self-improvement: virtual exercise classes of one sort or another, language lessons, choirs, orchestras, zoom encounters from one end of the world to the other. I am lost in admiration – but I can’t help noticing it is mainly younger people who are keeping all this going. It is one thing to throw yourself into these activities to pass the time until lock-down ends, it is quite another to embrace this as a new way of life. My world is enhanced by real people interacting with real people in real time. Of course I miss theatre and concerts and exhibitions and dinner parties and book clubs and journeys to far-away places – but they all seem relics  of a life denied for the foreseeable future. Does this challenge my will to live? No. Not even close. Maybe the phrase “master my circumstances” is a bit too ambitious. It could be that we are coming to understand the essentials that make life worth living.

Certainly the essentials for me are the people in my life: my family, of course  – but importantly, my friends. Strange to relate, Covid has brought us closer together. Thanks to the wonders of Whatsapp I can spend hours and hours, week after week, talking to friends all over the world. Most of them I have known for a very long time and we never tire of talking to each other, sharing our ups and downs, our insights and issues, our families’ fortunes and misfortunes, exchanging book and film titles, tips for getting on and leading meaningful lives. It was Guy de Maupassant who said “it is the lives we encounter that make life worth living” and how lucky am I to have such marvellous friends  – and, it must be said, to live in a technological age. Where would we be without technology?

*The Guardian quoting Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, 7June.   

From Brenda in Hove: “I can’t breathe”

a ‘meme’ that is travelling the internet

3 June

The picture of George Floyd being murdered clutches at my heart – as indeed it has clutched the heart of hundreds of thousands of protesting people across America and other parts of the world.  

Sadly, I am not new to protests nor police brutality in the face of those protests. I spent most of my life in South Africa where apartheid and all it entailed ruled supreme for too long. Scenes of protest marches turning into massacres were reported all over the world –  Sharpeville perhaps being the one that seared itself most dramatically on the minds of the watching world. If anything, matters got worse in South Africa after Sharpeville – but it was, I think, a turning point. Maybe, just maybe, the George Floyd murder will also be a turning point in American history.    

I worked at a university in South Africa which was designated ‘white’ until freedom came in 1994 but was at least part of a small group of “liberal” universities. We all had to deal with increasingly draconian measures after Sharpeville until the late 1980s when pressure started to build for radical change.  Much of the pressure was evidenced by protest marches in the name of one cause or grievance. Many of those marches got out of hand, sometimes because people who had other agendas used the event to further their own ends – but more often because the reason for the march was not addressed and some reasonable way forward not found.

Achieving freedom in South Africa without a bloody conflict was seen as almost miraculous and Nelson Mandela hailed as a truly great leader. Even then, the country still had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear and redress at least some of the awful crimes committed during those long years of struggle.

Clearly the protests rocking America are vast in number and being managed by multiple agencies – but there seem to me to be some basic mistakes made at leadership level. Is it asking too much that there be some acknowledgement that there is some systemic problem that needs addressing? Is it asking too much that civic leaders be called to come together and forge a way forward, perhaps city by city, state by state?  Is it asking too much of a president that he be seen to be leading such efforts to seek some unity in finding a solution?  

It defies belief that the leader of “the free world”  could only come up with two ideas:

  1. Threaten the protesters with military action – which is probably unconstitutional; and
  2. Stand in front of a boarded up church and wave a bible at the cameras. This must be as bizarre a sight of an American president as one could possibly imagine. But it is also a sight that might represent a turning point. Waving goodbye to his re-election, and ushering in a true leader who will address the grievous racism in his country.

From Brenda in Hove, UK: “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky …”

Hove Beach, UK. a sunny day for beach huts

28 May. So far we have been told to take our exercise close to home (really, Dominic) and I have obeyed that instruction. The brakes seem to be coming off somewhat so I ventured down to the Hove seafront today. It is officially half term for the schools and normally we would see thousands of tourists on the beach-front but the town councillors warnings to people to stay away from Brighton and Hove seem to have had effect – even in the glorious weather we are enjoying.

There were quite a few people on the beach and in the sea – but distances more than respected – and the same went for the promenade (and not a mask in sight). It was more than a very relaxed and pleasant experience; it was so normal; it was a joy! .

People had also returned to their beach huts and there was an unusual amount of DIY going on.  Quite a few are scruffy and one wonders why some people don’t sell their huts if they clearly haven’t used them for years. They sell for something between £16,000 and £25,000. High price to pay! Anyway, hot owners out in force, with their deck chairs and picnic tables hauled out and the kettles on – and much sun worshipping in evidence.  

Much to my surprise, Hove lagoon café was open for take-away after being closed since lock-down. Hurry on over! Chips on the beach – new special treat. Another joy! Really. Nothing like a pleasure denied and then allowed.

Table tennis being played but lagoon and children’s playgrounds and paddling pool not in use. I miss the sound of small children playing.

Cyclists much in evidence as usual and it is worth noting that the line-up of bicycles provided by the Council had been added to – and there were lots of newly painted cycle lanes on the way to the beach.

What I had sorely missed was just looking at the sea. We have lived near the sea for more than half our lives and I never tire of contemplating the waves and the sun playing on the water. Such bliss to be able to indulge such a simple pleasure again.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Time to show up

Rural community in Northern KwazuluNatal, South Africa

20 May. My son, Ian, lives in South Africa, inland from Durban on the East Coast in the province of KwaZulu Natal. It is a spectacular part of the country which is rich in beautiful landscapes. It has many conservation areas, game parks and nature reserves which are visited by people from all over the world – or used to be, at least. Like other countries, South Africa has been in lock-down and there is certainly no tourism. South Africa had 67 million international visitors in 2018 and their contribution to GDP was estimated at 8.5% and growing.

It is not difficult to imagine what this has done to the people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods – no more real than in rural communities far away from cities and adjacent to the wildlife reserves that serve as employers to the local communities and through which tourists used to pass.

Last week Ian, a part time expedition member with the Kingsley Holgate Foundation, joined Kingsley and several others who have started a movement called “Feeding the Wildlife Communities”( to deliver 4.5 tonnes of food to communities in very remote areas who are suffering terribly under the COVID lockdown conditions that currently grip South Africa.

The 3 tonnes was purchased from the Potchefstroom Chamber of Commerce and the remaining 1.5 tonnes generously donated by the DO MORE foundation (part of RCL foods). 

The journey was a 1200 km round trip that took them up to northern KwaZulu, Natal, right on the border of Mozambique and Swaziland distributing food along the way. When Ian told me about it, I have to say I was beside myself with anxiety. I remembered a time when there was a horrendous flood in the province and my sons were teenagers and volunteered with the Red Cross to collect and distribute clothes and food – and had to be accompanied by armed soldiers. The thought of a few Land Rovers laden with food destroyed my sleep for the weekend.

Coolest kid ever

I should have known better. These are not amateurs. The team had already done two initial runs and set up a system through local indunas (elders in a tribe and in positions of authority). They were expecting the convoy and were prepped ahead of time so that when the convoy arrived, the local induna who received the parcels did so accompanied by five witnesses, and distribution was an orderly exercise. Everyone wore masks – and just as well in more ways than one. Ian said he was overcome by the levels of poverty and sheer despair.

School house – without a roof

It turned out that it wasn’t only food that was a problem. Right near the distribution point was a school: walls, windows, floors, roof beams – but no roof! A tornado had torn it off and much that was inside as well as the schooling was thrown into disarray. Ian is passionate about early learning (ages 0-6) and his company, Barrows, are much engaged in printing and distributing educational materials into this space.

Ian went straight into fund-raising mode.

Readers who are interested need to put ‘SCHOOL ROOF’ in the narrative box (and the Rand exchange rate is at an all-time high – so a little goes a long way). I was so pleased to at least do something.

From Brenda in Hove, UK: Brave New World

15 May: Under the new “stay alert” strictures I have gone out to discover what changes have been wrought in my immediate environment. Joy of joys, we went to our favourite garden centre, dutifully queued up at 2 metres intervals, for about twenty minutes, to gain entrance. One person in, one person out. When I got into the centre, it put a damper on me thinking there was a queue outside and I couldn’t just wander about, picking and choosing in the usual way. I happened to know what I wanted and found them very quickly and was out in about 15 minutes. Not so others – ambling aimlessly about, retracing their footsteps, forgetting about the 2 metre rule, looking vaguely anxious – and not alert. At one time I was in an aisle where people were queued and one person’s phone rang. She stopped dead to answer it and completely forgot we were all waiting behind her. When I reminded her, she got really cross! The whole excursion wasn’t much fun – but I did come home clutching some beautiful fuchsias.

I was interested to note that I was the only person wearing a mask. This is also not much fun. I wear hearing aids and spectacles and when you hook a mask behind your ear as well, it gets really crowded behind there! The hearing aid got caught in the mask elastic and fell off – and I didn’t notice until much later. After much searching, luckily, I found it in the car. And, by the way, if you wear spectacles and the mask isn’t very tightly fitted, your spectacles mist up. Holy mackerel.

The park is much more lively, I am happy to report. All the tennis courts were in use (singles only). Why on earth they could not have played all this time is a mystery to me – just one of many other mysteries. People were sitting on the lawns and enjoying the sunny weather – many of them alone or with their children. Again, innocent enough to have happened before now. Presumably they now know they have to be alert! Every now and again one can’t help noticing obsessive behaviour. No matter what time of day I go out there is always the same young man (in his twenties, I would think) shooting a ball into the basketball net – over and over again. His success rate is abysmal. I linger to see if he is getting better. He is not – but not for want of trying. He must be ill. There are lots more people, mostly young, who are clearly meeting with one or two friends (mothers with push chairs, for example) – and they are not being too fussy about the two metre rule. Not a lert to be seen – just when our country needs them.  

From Brenda in Hove: Zoom with a view

11 May: With so many interviews and programmes showing people sitting at their computers it seems that I am not the only one who finds interest in the backgrounds rather than the interview! A couple of weeks ago The Financial Times had a column on the rooms from which some politicians broadcast – and drew all sorts of conclusions, some not very flattering. They chose the heading ‘zoom with a view’.

I have spent several years attending meetings by one video link or another and always take care not only with my own appearance and what I wear but also the view I present to the rest of the meeting. I am acutely aware that my presence is being projected onto a screen in the board room (or wherever) where I am actually larger than life – and that has obvious disadvantages. I know that people in the meeting can see not only me but the books in the bookcase behind me – and even read their titles. I don’t take any chances that they might be uninterested!

Not so many of the people we see online at the moment. I am amazed (I suppose I should be admiring) that so few seem to care about what we see of their homes, bookcases, kitchens, etc. Simon Sharma endeared himself to me by having the most chaotic book shelves ever. Books piled upon books, books on the floor, books on tables, books simply everywhere. Thomas Piketty drew my admiration by having well-organised, red bookshelves; lots of books looking their very best offset by red. Why is he the only one to have red bookshelves? By contrast, Angela Rippon recommended herself to me by having the most immaculate presentation. She didn’t have a hair out of place (no mean feat in lock-down), her make-up was perfect, her dress was just right and behind her was an orchid and a vase of fresh flowers on an otherwise uncluttered surface and uncluttered wall. I like attention to detail.

And then there are those who have bookcases but no books; instead they load up the shelves with their trophies and awards. Often the walls behind them display framed awards as well. They seem to occupy shrines rather than homes and I wonder what their long-suffering partners and families think of this form of decoration.  Damien Green, of all people, recommended himself by having an Alan Gourley (my husband’s uncle) painting behind him.

My favourite interviews are those where the interviewee doesn’t have total control of his/her surroundings; partners, children, dogs, and cats all have bit parts. In lock-down it doesn’t do to be too judgmental. One gets one’s pleasures where one can!  And sometimes I enjoy the interview for its intrinsic merit.

From Brenda in Hove: In transition

We moved house a few months ago. Our new home needed cupboards and bookshelves so we put a lot of books and clothes into storage and unpacked the rest. We got as far as having one set of cupboards and one set of bookshelves installed before lock-down made any further work possible. Piles of books prop up the TV set. Boxes of books are squirreled away here and there and cupboards are uncomfortably full. We feel as if we are camping, waiting for a time when we can get on with alterations, settle into our new home, and create order.

It has got me to thinking how many people were in some sort of transition when the country went into lockdown.

I hear tales of people who had decided to leave their partners but are stuck having to live with them because they can’t look for alternative accommodation at this time.

I read about people whose cancer treatments have been suspended. Doctors, we are told are worried about people who are postponing going to hospital or their general practitioners in the normal way to discuss symptoms that may well be serious. There are significant drops in the number of people attending Accident and Emergency Departments. They can’t all be suddenly well.

These are not the only kind of treatments postponed. There are people who need the kind of help that Alcoholics Anonymous provided. The AA website reads “whilst our ability to help you during the coronavirus crisis may be restricted our willingness is not.” A telephone number is at least provided.

There are people with all sorts of mental health problems and, not only is their access to help put on hold, but their mental health will surely deteriorate in isolation.

I hear of vulnerable children who normally live in some sort of care facility who have now been sent home for their families to simply do the best they can – however unequipped they may be.

I wonder what percentage of people had their lives in some kind of steady state when lock-down went into operation. I suspect a whole lot fewer than we think.

The ‘pause’ button has been pressed for all of us. What choices will we have when lock-down ends? I suspect the ‘play from where you left off’ button won’t be an option for everyone. The ‘play from the beginning’ button won’t work. The ‘fast forward’ button might work as many of us frantically try to catch up on lost time. But, sadly, for many people life has been irretrievably changed. The new economy, for one thing, will see to that.